The Problem With 'Man-Bag' and Other 'Man' Words

What's really going on when we use "male" versions of terms for typically feminine things?
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Is this a "man bun?" (Neon Tommy/flickr)

The English language has recently become the breeding ground for a distinctive set of terms that I will tentatively refer to as "man words." These are words such as "man bag," "man flu," "mankini," etc. You have undoubtedly encountered some of them in everyday conversation and perhaps even used a few yourself. They are typically nouns, preceded by the word “man,” so as to indicate that the thing this word refers to is intended to be used by a man. Even though "man words" are a recent development in the English language, their use is becoming increasingly widespread, especially in informal contexts.

The trend started with catchy fashion-related words such as the abovementioned "man bag" and soon other permutations followed. The trend keeps gaining momentum, with new "man words" being coined in increasingly creative ways. On the surface, these terms seem to be just another fun pop culture addition to the English vocabulary and not necessarily something that is meant to be taken seriously. They certainly do not come across as the most obvious candidates for linguistic analysis. However, I think "man words" are actually far less innocent than they seem and that it is therefore important to look into the meanings they convey and the effect they may be creating. Beneath their humorous surface, there is a layer of meaning that is not only unfunny, but potentially harmful. This implicit meaning contains the kind of gender stereotypes that can have a detrimental effect on people's perception of gender.

Studies in linguistic relativity have provided us with the insight that language affects the way we perceive the world. Our world view, in turn, influences our actions, which are reflected in the constructs we create around us, whether they be culture, social norms, or laws. In light of this theory, the presence of gender stereotypes in a language feature such as "man words" is not a purely linguistic, academic problem—it is a real problem whose consequences can be felt in the real world. We can get an idea of the nature of this problem if we look into the underlying meaning of "man words."

"Man bag" is one of the most widely used "man words" and its overt meaning is self-explanatory. The reason why the meaning is so obvious is that an existing word (handbag) is being used as the basis for a new word intended to be used for a men's equivalent of the same concept. The same structuring principle is used in other fashion-related "man words", such as "mankup," "manliner," (or “guyliner”) "manscara," "mantyhose," and the aforementioned "mankini." The consistent structure makes the surface meaning of these words immediately recognizable.

However, these words have an additional, more subtle meaning. Namely, the addition of "man" to the above fashion-oriented words implies that the original words are somehow inherently feminine and it takes the prefix "man" to linguistically neutralize them and, in a way, redeem them. But the implication goes even further. Objects such as handbags, pantyhose, and makeup are associated with fashion and beauty. Both of those categories are generally considered to be consumerist and not particularly profound.  Even though this subtext may not be immediately obvious, when people repeatedly use or are exposed to these fashion-related man words, the implicit correlation between superficial consumerism and femininity gradually builds up in the unconscious. The "women=superficial consumers" stereotype gets entrenched in our minds. The presence of glaring stereotypes about women in the unconscious does leave a mark on our environment through the aesthetic standards, social norms, and expectations we create.

The damage caused by "man words" isn't limited to women. “Man words" also contribute to the negative stereotyping of men. The previously mentioned "man flu" is one such example. The Oxford Dictionary defines man flu as "a cold or similar minor ailment as experienced by a man who is regarded as exaggerating the severity of the symptoms." The idea here is that, deep down, men are really nothing but whiny attention-seeking weaklings who exaggerate their illnesses. But studies show that’s not true.

Research has shown that men are less likely than women to look after their health and seek medical attention when needed. According to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, "men are 24 percent less likely than women to have visited a doctor within the past year and are 22 percent more likely to have neglected their cholesterol tests." Similar results have been reported in the U.K., where the National Pharmacy Association found that "men are much less likely than women to take advantage of primary care services, including community pharmacies. They are also unwilling to consult a pharmacist face-to-face or seek treatment when sick." This data makes the "man flu" joke fall decisively flat, and might make men even more reluctant to communicate their health problems for fear of being dismissed as needy hypochondriacs.

In addition to "man flu," there are several other offensive examples of "man words." For example, the "man language", "menglish" and something called a "MANual". These words, found in publications aimed at women, convey the stereotype that men are unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings, while women are more mature and more capable of expressing their emotions. As a result of these "fundamental" differences, men and women are effectively speaking two different languages—women's presumably being ordinary English, while men speak "menglish" or "man language." To understand what they are saying, women need an instruction "MANual". This infantilizing stereotype ultimately degrades men. And thus "man words" achieve the strange feat of being offensive both to women and men making them bizarrely egalitarian.

Despite the blatant gender stereotypes they represent, "man words" are proliferating. The most recent new "man word" I have encountered, "man bun", is a catchy name for a men’s hairstyle, not unlike a woman's hair knot or bun. In this sense, "man bun" conforms with the previously discussed fashion-related "man word" template. An article in the Yahoo Food section references the "man bun" that Jared Leto sported at the Golden Globes and then goes on to say: "Which got us thinking, if we could eat the food equivalent of the Man Bun, what would it taste like? Probably like beer, pretzels and pork, right?" This additional use of "man bun" refers to food, and conveys the meaning that a bun can be either feminine or masculine. According to this distinction, the feminine bun is the ordinary everyday variety (which, if it were a food, would presumably be made with sugar, spice and everything nice), whereas a man bun is made with stereotypically manly ingredients such as meat, beer and, apparently, pretzels.

The "man words" phenomenon is a thriving new trend in the English language that is constantly being expanded and adapted for new purposes. However, it is important to note that what is being expanded is not only the corpus of catchy new words in the English language, but also the resident gender stereotypes that these words contain at their core. Since the underlying meaning of language has a direct influence on what goes on in society, the speakers' exposure to the gender stereotypes contained in "man words" is bound to be reflected in the outside world. The ideas expressed through language have an impact on thought, which ultimately has an influence on action. If "man words" continue to be widely used without the speakers' awareness of their underlying meaning, as they are now, they will further strengthen various unhelpful gender stereotypes in our already stereotype-saturated cultural environment.

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Sonja Kudei is a writer based in London.

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